Compost Update: Infestation Scare

Just checking in with a little compost update. I’m happy to report that I was able to start adding to my compost tumbler again today. You may be wondering, what happened? After this post, you may have assumed that I was adding food scraps daily. I’m almost embarrassed to admit that I had to press pause for a week or so because my compost tumbler got a black fly infestation. If you don’t like creepy-crawlies, you may want to just stop reading now. I don’t like most creepy-crawlies so much that I failed to take a photo of the infestation. But it looked a little something like this:

GROSS! Admittedly, they weren’t quite that jam-packed, but they definitely attacked a Blue Moon-soaked orange slice and seemed to drunkenly multiply right before my eyes! I was so upset. But a little research pointed out that I hadn’t been turning my compost enough (indeed, it was probably only getting turned once a week at this point). So I put myself on a regimen and turned that baby at least twice a day, every day.

Another tip was to add boiling water to create conditions too warm for the larvae to survive. I did this three times and marveled at the immediate steam that was created inside my compost tumbler.

Today, a week and a couple days later, I did an inspection and was relieved to find the number of maggots greatly reduced, if not totally eliminated. I added some fresh food scraps and newspaper strips and gave it a good turn.

Then I found this:

And now I don’t know whether or not I had these black soldier flies or just regular house flies. Either way, they’re pretty much gone now, and I feel better. I also consulted my friend Paige of the Blue Ridge Eco Shop and she offered the following advice:

1. Brown is the new black: Most compost tumbler manufacturers recommend adding a 50-50 ratio of browns-greens. Greens being your “wet” materials like food scraps or fresh grass, browns being newspaper, paper, dry leaves, twigs, etc. It can be difficult, however, to know exactly what a 50-50 ratio looks like, especially when you’re going through a lot of food scraps each week. When in doubt, err on the side of too much brown. We don’t subscribe to the local paper here, so whenever I’m in town I pick up those free real estate guides or other local publications printed on newsprint and keep them in my recycling box until I need it for compost.

2. Be kind to your decomposers: Food scraps don’t just magically break down into “dirt” by themselves. They have a lot of help from beneficial bacteria, microbes, and insects. Some insects, like earthworms, are just fine to have in your compost bin, as long as they don’t bother you. Others may help in the breakdown process, but eventually become nuisances (like my invasive flies–some of which made it to the post-larval stage), so keep an eye on them.

3. Turn, Baby, Turn: Whether you keep your compost in a round tumbler, a tower model, or a huge tupperware container, stir it up. Ironically, mixing helps the breakdown process occur faster and helps the smaller microbes to digest the stuff before the flies can get to it. Set a schedule for when to turn (even if you don’t add anything that day) or designate one person in your household to maintain this as part of the weekly chores.

Now that I’m breathing a little easier, I’ll be keeping a better eye on my compost, especially since I’m hoping to use the first batch when I turn over a plot or two in my yard to overwinter for next year’s garden adventures! And if you’re one who composts, keep this post in mind if something ever takes over your compost container. In the meantime, let me know how you feel about compost. Is it worth the effort? Is it feasible in your area? Has anybody ever heard of the beneficial contributions of black soldier flies?? Leave a comment with your thoughts.

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